National Geographic : 2003 Oct
McGUIRE GIBSON, ARCHAEOLOGIST When the Marine helicopter swooped down over the ancient city of Isin, we saw two or three hundred looters destroying the site. They actually smiled and waved at us-they had no idea we had come to halt their illegal dig. We told them what they were doing was forbidden, and the marines with us fired shots over their heads to hasten their exit. We did the same at Umma, but as we were leaving, we could see the looters coming back to work. Our survey of remote sites in southern Iraq painted a terrible picture. Iraq used to have strict regulations and a fierce pride in protecting its cultural heritage. Looting wasn't aproblem until the mid 1990s, when poverty brought on by UN sanc tions pushed local people into digging for antiquities to survive. Fortunately our Iraqi colleagues began legal McGuire Gibson, left, and ca ionat pa Henry Wright view returned excavations at places artifacts at the Iraq Museum. like Umma, and that dis couraged illicit looting. But this war has created an unprecedented crisis. Iraq is probably losing more of its antiquities from the ongoing pillaging of these sites than were taken from its museums in the days immediately following the war. Clearly, this devasta tion must be stopped, and an occasional visit by a helicopter is not going to save these sites." McGuire Gibson is a professor at the Universityof Chicago'sOrientalInstitute.